Our world is not the same, and we’ve learned so much since COVID-19 struck nearly 20 months ago. Above all, we must do everything possible to keep students and staff in school, safely. We are 150 percent committed to doing so, as recently re-affirmed by Santa Barbara Unified School District (SBUSD) Superintendent Maldonado. Yet this is not easy. In just six weeks of school, we’ve seen an alarming rate of positive cases that now total 68. Approximately 50 SBUSD students (out of an enrollment of 13,000) and about 20 staff members (out of 1,600) have tested positive.
The reason for the troubling rate of infections is clear: a dangerous combination of the Delta variant and low vaccination rates. Unfortunately, the Delta variant of COVID-19 is targeting children who were not as affected by the less contagious original strain. Those under 12 cannot yet be vaccinated, making them more vulnerable than ever. Sadly, of those teenagers throughout the county who are eligible for the vaccine, only 53 percent have taken the shot. Overall, our county vaccination rates are not where they need to be to outrun this variant, and our school case numbers reflect it. Unvaccinated staff and students represent a disproportionate number of those in our school community who have tested positive.
It is also alarming how sick some children are getting from the Delta variant. In Santa Barbara County, there were five children hospitalized due to COVID-19 in August. Nationally, child hospitalization rates were five times higher in August than June before the Delta variant spiked. And those hospitalized children were predominantly unvaccinated: Hospitalization rates among unvaccinated adolescents were 10 times higher than those who are vaccinated. This information comes to us from the CDC using data from the Coronavirus Disease 2019-Associated Hospitalization Surveillance Network (COVID-NET).
Given these realities, we must do more to get more people vaccinated. While it is encouraging that 85 percent of SBUSD staff have already completed two doses, as of today, 10 percent (164 people) either refuse or are unwilling to provide confirmation that they have. Some of these employees interact with young unvaccinated children. What’s more, unlike those who are vaccinated, if an unvaccinated employee is exposed to COVID-19 yet feels fine, he or she must still quarantine and miss valuable time at work when there is already a substitute teacher shortage.
Based on this context of Delta and our vaccination rates as well as the advice of scientific experts, here are the five tools that we need to use to keep our kids in school:
Masking: To reduce risk of infection, there is scientific evidence that students and staff must always wear masks indoors. And the quality of the mask is key. According to experts including Dr. Ashish Jha, a leading covid expert and Dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, cloth masks are not effective enough to combat Delta. Students and staff need N95, KN95, or KF94 masks. It is important to note that states that don’t have school mask mandates, such as Georgia, COVID-19 is surging, with 53 hospitalizations per 100,000 people compared with California’s 18 hospitalizations per 100,000 people.
Distancing: As hard as this is, keeping space between kids in the classrooms is important. We’ve seen from positive cases these past few weeks that children can avoid exposure if they adhere to spacing when indoors. Unfortunately, the CDC guidelines not recommending spacing must be changed. We are both advocating for this to be made clearer, and enforced, in each of the 800 classrooms at SBUSD. Classroom arrangements must ensure safe distancing, and we would like more classes to take place outdoors.
Ventilation: This layer of protection in our classrooms and other indoor spaces is extremely vital — more so than we knew at the beginning of the pandemic. Thankfully, SBUSD has worked in partnership with UCSB professors (who are also parents in our school district) to test our classrooms to ensure proper air circulation. And the district recently purchased air purifiers for every classroom and office space that must be used diligently every day.
Testing. Frequent testing is a smart tool to use and is advised by medical experts. Surveillance testing means that we test all students once and then based on the results we can determine the frequency going forward. For example, if one class, grade, or school has an unusually high positivity rate, we can test those students more frequently than one that does not to curb the spread of infection. Sadly, there is a myth promulgated on social media that the swabs used for the tests are cancer causing. This is not true and has been debunked repeatedly by experts. Tests are safe, fast, and necessary.
Vaccinations for all. This single most effective way to ensure safety and avoid hospitalization and death is to get vaccinated. With the daunting reality of the rapid spread of the Delta variant in mind, we have now concluded that it is absolutely essential to require COVID-19 vaccinations for ALL school staff who are eligible. The original SBUSD mandate for staff (approved in August) required vaccinations or weekly testing, but given our case numbers, this is clearly not enough. A revised and strengthened mandate should eliminate the testing option and call for ALL eligible district staff to be vaccinated as soon as reasonably possible. The state requires all health-care workers to be vaccinated; educators should be held to the same standard.
Similar to the many other vaccines that children must have to enroll in school, such as polio, we believe that soon eligible students need to be vaccinated to attend in person learning at SBUSD. Many other school districts, such as Culver City, are leading the way. As California’s State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond has said in support of a student vaccine mandate, “Everyone wants their kid in school, and the biggest single factor has to be the vaccine.”
Vaccines for all eligible school staff and all eligible students would make us more certain than ever that Santa Barbara Unified School District students and employees are as safe as possible during these challenging times. And, after all, that is our job.